Steven Hyden wrote a piece at Grantland this week called “Is Phish A Great Band?” Ultimately, though, it’s not about Phish.
Let’s say it’s 50 years in the future, and you’re trying to figure out how and why pop music has arrived at its present permutation. Let’s also say that recorded music still exists, but no longer as a product that artists attempt to sell. Like other forms of devalued currency, recordings have flooded the market to the point of virtual worthlessness. But music fans are still willing to pay to hear a version of a song that doesn’t exist yet, and will only ever exist once. Because of this economic development, bands spend a lot less time making albums and devote the majority of their energy to honing their live shows. Over time, people gradually stop talking about fixed versions of songs and begin evaluating bands on their ability to perform and refresh their body of work. This creates a new paradigm for how we talk about music — pop historians start rating the Dead over the Beatles as the best rock band ever. Music is perceived less like film and more like theater or sports — as a venue for live events that lose their essential appeal if they’re not viewed in the moment.
[Emphasis mine.] This is the context in which Phish is already, and undoubtedly, a great band.
There are other bands currently operating at least halfway under this model, too. The Stones have been doing it since the early ’80s, more or less successfully, until this latest tour. Other jam bands, like Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic, have followed this path, too, but I think the “body of work” concept is applicable beyond the jam genre. A band that can consistently create a fresh, present cathartic or insightful experience with an audience could consider this route, whether they play metal, soul, punk, country, or anything else. Jazz and blues musicians have, for the most part, always worked this way; having the album version of a song be the definitive one is the exception. Even with Miles Davis, with his classic LPs like Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, the groups he put together and the performances they gave rival the albums.
Pure pop musicians may have the toughest time transitioning to a “body of work” model. Hits need to be performed faithfully, so keeping the hits fresh involves incorporating dance, stage shows, and other spectacles. Remixing could work in small amounts, but I doubt it would work as a foundation for regularly reinvigorating performances; can you imagine Madonna going on a new remix tour every couple of years?
I’m not sure of the implications here for my own music. I love making records, and the success of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories shows that there’s still some wider interest in albums. Maybe Hyden’s story reminds us that the “body of work” path to success has never gone away; it may have receded a bit over the past 50 years, but is coming back as the web has devalued recordings. Bands should consider it seriously.